Monday, March 12, 2012

Dirty Mind vs. Debit Card: Was This Sexism By Another Name?

Today's Dirty Mind is T.R. Verten.

T.R. Verten is another writer who came through my virtual door knowing exactly what she wanted to say. I've been wondering whether all my Dirty Minds colluded behind my back, since each one has presented a different facet of the effect the Paypal policy has had on the writers and the stories they write. T.R. hits a point I've been equally disturbed about, and one no other guest author has yet touched on.

I have no story of sexual awakening to share with you, because I’m not that kind of writer. My own fantasies aren’t part of my canon, my own subjectivity is not all that evident on the page. I write M/M almost exclusively, though I am trying to push my comfort zone to include other pairings and proclivities, to keep from being what Tim Gunn would call ‘one-note.’

My journey to writing fiction only began in 2010, when I took a leave of absence from my doctoral program at a highly prestigious and demanding institution. For several years I had been working on issues of queer publics and forms of collective representation. While I liked many aspects of academia -- it’s a damn good place to be an overly analytical, secular, child-free woman -- it was personally stifling. My words were bloodless at best, and I didn’t have any kind of creative outlet, which is a crucial part of being human. It’s a thing we all need, whether it comes in the form of crotchet, herb gardening, LARP’ing, or ropeplay.

Writing for me came about through exposure to fandom, not ‘erotica’ proper. I grew up reading Miller and Nin and Friday and Bukowski and all the rest, but none of those works pushed my buttons. As an adult, I bought erotica aimed at women, and it did nothing for me, the same way heterosexual porn did nothing for me, and continues to do nothing for me to this day. (The exception being James Deen, who fascinates me, and who I can watch perform for, seriously, hours.)

It was not until I dipped a toe into the world of slash that I wanted to write anything remotely sexual, at least since the days of keeping an adolescent diary full of emo snippets about boys and girls I thought were cute. With slash (which is just M/M by another name), something clicked in my head. Sessha Batto addressed many of my own sentiments in her interview, and her motives for writing it are a lot like my own.

The first is that I like it: I think it’s hot. I don’t feel any need to explore the etiology of this kink or justify it, but I’ll admit, initially it worried me. Was my internal misogyny so ingrained that I couldn’t even write about women? Did I hate myself, too? Was this sexism by another name? Was I the freak? Why didn’t I like the romance and erotica that society told me I was supposed to enjoy? Was I fetishizing gay men? All this and more, ad nauseum.

To some extent, maybe all of those things are true. But it doesn’t fucking matter. It doesn’t matter who I am as a person, all that matters is what I produce as a writer. Simply put, for me, writing queer fiction allows me the freedom to explore power dynamics without the constraints of gender. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool feminist, and while I have no issue with what practices folks get up to on their own time, I’m not comfortable exploring the assymetrical power relations of D/s within heterosexual relationships, because those come with their own gendered baggage.

It probably sounds counter-intuitive, but writing M/M is a very liberating experience for a woman. So much of the internalized shame and body hatred that we get socialized into has a much less predominant place when you write from a male POV, even more so when both parties are male. This isn’t to sideline anyone’s lived experiences, but merely by way of saying that writing can go places life can’t, for the author and her readers. It’s a powerful tool, not to mention a highly cathartic process for many, self included.

I consider myself a character and psychology-driven writer. Sex is the fastest and simplest way for me into a character’s head. Nearly everything I write contains a shitload of sex scenes, and most of those are quite graphic. I’m not fond of euphemisms or false delicacy, and I definitely don’t write romance. What I write is life, in all its fucked up complexity and fullness, with as much honesty and rawness as I can bring to the work. If that means I am niche, or won’t get reviewed, or don’t make any money, then so be it. If I wrote for the sole purpose of earning an income, I wouldn’t write the way that I do.

I don’t write about sex: I write about power, bodies, desire. These inflect in different ways -- in sex, in love, in friendship. Thematically, I care about capitalism, the realization of personal limitations, the value of finding one’s place in the world. Also blowjobs.

I have done my best to stay away from the comments on many of the blog posts surrounding the PayPal issue, in part because “Don’t read the comments” is pretty much my mantra for dealing with the internet, full stop. I did scroll down to read a few, though, and was appalled by the condescension and vitriol that many commenters expressed. While so many of these are outright laughable -- the specious ad hominem argument that only ‘rapists, murders, and pedophiles’ would write such material -- the responses from my fellow writers were what concerned me the most.

The first response seems to go along the lines of well that’s not what I write so I don’t really give a shit. To those people I would say: Look, I don’t write like you do, but I see no reason to suppress or shaft either of us. It’s much more than apathy, I think. I myself am basically wholly apathetic about what other folks want to write or read. Plenty of fiction, genre or otherwise, doesn’t interest me in the slightest. There are whole genres I find to be banal, badly written, or downright offensive. But to be perfectly frank, it’s not important. It’s easy enough to argue for merit, readability, and artistic integrity. I believe staunchly in all of those things, but even more so in the value art adds to life. I may define those in different ways, but the principle remains intact.

One woman got into a heated twitter exchange with Monocle the other night, accusing him of not writing ‘real books,’ and telling him to ‘go play in a different sandbox.’ This bullshit attitude, especially coming from other creative types, is more troublesome to me than anything. Let’s be real: the market pretty much speaks for itself, and if there’s an audience willing to pay for perfectly legal material, I don’t see what the problem is. Workarounds have already been in place for years in the adult industry, which has its own thorny history with PayPal as a moral enforcer. If the demand is there, I’m sure those of us who write edgy material will come up with strategies to get around these restrictions.

What concerns me is the idea that we’re all competing with one another, rather than encouraging a range of creative expression. I’ve actually seen comments to the effect of well that’s fine more market share for me and here’s my spammy link to my self-pubbed title and down with you wackadoo anti-censorship types! I read these comments and am more offended by them than any fictional representation of a transgressive act.

Because what are you saying with this, commenter? You’re making a judgment call about what kind of material is suitable for the open market, okay, but you’re also SHITTING ON YOUR FELLOW WRITERS.  

That attitude tells me instantly everything I need to know about you, and by extension, your work. It tells me that you care only about the bottom line and covering your own ass. And while I dislike the use of 'real' as a qualifier, generally speaking, I’ll use it here without compunction--


So this is what I say: the internet and e-publishing are the vanguard, but all of us have a moral obligation to keep the sandbox open to everyone. I don’t care if I hate your writing or think it’s derivative tripe. Content shouldn’t be the issue. Whether you write vampire romance or torture porn or children’s books or incest-riddled high fantasy, you’re still a fucking writer. We all play with words, with our different degrees of mastery and style. My online world is welcome to everyone with generosity of spirit. There is no need to in-fight. There is enough sand and space for us all.

My own lone title Confessions of a Rent Boy from Republica won’t be available for purchase after the end of this month, though I’m working to find a solution to that. I have another finished novella that is deeply transgressive and in need of a home. My current WIP skirts the line between heavy D/s and experimental fiction (Yeah, I don’t know either), and my plan for self-distribution using a PayPal donate button has gone up in flames, so that’s definitely on the back burner for now.

Anyways, thanks for having me, Eden. To the rest of you: Be generous, be kind, make art. Sod the haters.

Find T.R on Twitter, too: @trepverten and on Tumblr

Thank you for coming T.R. I appreciate your taking time to talk with us and provide the final piece to the discussion, one about the dissent among writers within the sex/romance genre. I agree, I have watched too many draw a distinction between what they write and what's being targeted. To me, writing sex is writing sex. In my lifetime, these same snotty, finger-pointing people would have been pilloried for writing what they write, but they cannot see it's the fact the envelope has been pushed that allows them the freedom to write and publish their work. Believing in freedom of expression means you can't only defend what you think right, you must defend every viewpoint's right to be expressed. I'd argue it's more important to defend the right of the fringe viewpoints, because without expansion of thought, you get constriction of thought, and going backwards is not progress. To those who say "I was raped and this stuff makes me ill," I'd ask whether you'd deny another woman the right to use that same literature to help her own healing process? Or to write it if that's how she needs to sift through the emotional detritus of her pain? That seems breathtakingly cruel to me, and I find the attitude more offensive than any book I'll ever read, because that is real callousness, utterly heartless and selfish. If extreme erotica offends you, simply don't read it. But if you haven't read it--and these types act as though they'd never be caught dead reading about sex not bundled into a socially acceptable vehicle like a relationship--then what's the real harm in letting it exist for others? To those I saw rushing to demand other titles be suppressed because their title was banned I say: Sure, let's help Paypal swing the axe, that's the mark of professionalism. <sarcasm font in use>  Unacceptable, and unworthy of anyone calling themselves a professional writer.
This is the final post in the Dirty Minds series. It has been my absolute privilege to host these fine individuals, and to join their fight. To the reader, I hope these authors helped you see why you need to care about corporate censorship. Tomorrow, I'll have to actually write a post, to sum up what I feel about PayPal's response to the outcry.

As I grit my teeth and dissect their condescension, I'll be grinning too--because we are making an outcry. Because YOU are making an outcry. Don't stop. Don't ever stop. Call PayPal, e-mail Paypal, and demand to know why they feel you cannot choose what you READ.

Cover art generously donated by Narcisse Navarre


  1. Yeah, I don't understand that urge to tear other people down. I know it's there, I know people more often than not tend towards needing to feel "above" others on a basic level, no matter what group they're in; I've seen it happen in groups where you'd think there'd be unity and cohesion due to outside persecution. But I genuinely do not get the superior posturing that's been triggered by this.

    Thank you, T.R., and you too Eden. This has been a terrific series.

  2. I've been enthralled by some of the very real insight these writers have brought to this ongoing discussion. T.R.s comment about 'Is erotica merely sexism in disguise' has my wheels turning now. Perhaps were due for an overhaul on the term 'sexism'?

  3. We're going to find a home for you and your nasty fiction, T.R.! Don't you worry.
    The world need less disney sex and a whole lot more transgressive fiction, as far as I'm concerned.